That summer, I fell in love with Israel. I spent eight weeks hiking and walking every inch of the country. We climbed Masada at 4 a.m. to watch the sunrise and trekked into Ein Gedi; we rode in an open-back truck through the Negev and swam in the warm waters in Eilat. At each turn, I was struck by the beauty of the country, the blooming of the desert, and the enthusiasm, optimism and patriotism of its people. It was in such contrast to the U.S. in 1967—our cities were burning and thousands were protesting the war and demonstrating in the streets. In Jerusalem, whenever a military plane flew by, everything would stop and people would walk outside and cheer loudly, really cheering for Israel’s right to exist in that part of the world.
Fast-forward to 1990. I applied to be Executive Director of the JCRC of Greater Boston. When asked at the interview how I could do the job if I had not been to Israel for 24 years, I responded that I would be happy to go any time. Since I took that job in 1990 I have returned to Israel more than 40 times—during times of war and during times of peace—with my family, with Jewish groups and with non-Jewish “guests.” I have been witness on these trips to the deep changes in Israeli society. My continued love for a country with enormous pride in defending herself, in opening holy places to all religious groups, in putting family first and ensuring a safety net of health and welfare for her citizens and, yes, an undivided city of Jerusalem; has increasingly been challenged by a deep concern for the divides between rich and poor, Arab and Jew, secular and religious, citizen and non-citizen. Added to those concerns is the fear that Israel may never achieve real and lasting peace with Palestinians and, as a result, be forced to give up either her Jewish majority or her commitment to democracy.
As I reflect on 50 years since the Six-Day War reunified Jerusalem and expanded the territories under Israel’s control, I worry a lot about Israel. My worry is not about her enemies outside. My worry is about what 50 years of ruling over another people has done to Israel’s soul. I dream still of a Jewish homeland that celebrates the diversity of all of her citizens. My love for Israel is as deep as it was that summer of 1967, and perhaps that abiding love is why I am so concerned about her future. I see so many challenges and so many opportunities and wonder which will prevail.
As an idealistic 16-year old, I applied for a $500 scholarship to the Israel Summer Institute through the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. My mom, a single mother of three, simply did not have the means to give me the other $500 for such a trip. So, in what was my very first fundraising experience, I asked a relative if he would “match” the scholarship. He said yes, but only if I agreed to take pictures, keep a journal and speak to youth groups about my trip upon my return. We sealed the deal, and I moved on to packing and creating a shot list.
And then I turned on the TV: A war in Israel. How could that be? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I had never been to Israel, never even traveled out of the US and Canada. As the phone rang off the hook with relatives and friends telling my mother not to let me go, I cut a deal with her: if the State Department allowed people to travel to Israel, I would be allowed to go. Lo and behold, in six days the war ended, and the State Department lifted its travel warning. 50 people cancelled that trip, but I went on to have the experience of a lifetime.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action. Prior to joining NCJW, Kaufman served as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Boston for twenty years.